Francis of Assisi: What it Means to Kiss the Hand of the Leper

From the book of Genesis forward, God has made clear that His people are to bless others as a natural outflow of the blessings God has given them. Over the last few weeks, I have tried to identify some important Judeo-Christian teachings concerning the responsibility of God’s people to care for the needy. We began by examining some of Jesus’ own ministry purposes for the poor and oppressed. We then looked at the Mishnah, and specifically the system for caring for the poor that was established by the Jews according to God’s command. We then moved to a Christian paradigm and the importance of seeing the poor according to John Chrysostom.


"St. Francis of Assisi" by Luca Giordano (1652)
"St. Francis of Assisi" by Luca Giordano (1652)

This week we move to the next level – from seeing to service – and St. Francis of Assisi (AD 1182-1226) will be our guide to understanding identification and engagement with the needy. The famed church historian Adolf von Harnack said, “If ever a man practiced what he preached, it was St. Francis.”

Francis was a peculiar individual. Many who lived as contemporaries of Francis questioned his sanity. He preached to birds, rabbits, fish, and dogs; and his followers believed the animals obeyed his commands. He is said to have experienced the first stigmata, or the appearance of the wounds of Christ on his body. During the Fifth Crusade, he walked into a Muslim camp and preached Christ to the Egyptian Sultan. In the age of Catholic scholasticism, he taught his followers that too much education made for worse followers of Christ. He afflicted himself with such a brutal degree of poverty and suffering that he readily admitted none of his followers should be expected to imitate him. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, he portrayed St. Francis as having been sent by God to bring Dante into afterlife.

Above anything else, however, St. Francis is remembered for living in a hands on manner among the needy. He believed the only way to truly love the poor, sick, and oppressed like Christ was to become as one them. He found his true calling for the needy in one of his first encounters with a leper. At first, Francis recoiled from the leper in disgust. As the Spirit moved Francis to compassion, however, he turned back to the leper, took his hand, and kissed it. He then turned the man’s hand over, and placed in it all the money he had. In the years that would follow, the lepers would become some of Francis’ most frequent company.

The following passage is a beautiful description by one of the Franciscans, the followers of Francis, within the same century as his death.

Thence his chief concern was to discern the cross within
Himself and to be more personally humble, poor, and pious.
There was a time when in horror from lepers he would recoil
And even from a long way off could scarcely bear their sight;
But now that he was humbled for the sake of Christ crucified,
Who Himself became leper-like, as the prophet testified,
Despised and rejected, he would minister to lepers,
To them be bountiful, and to other needy merciful.
Moreover, his own garments he took off to give away,
And unstitched or tore them for others, not himself, to have.
With reverence he came to the aid of churches and of priests,
Lavish was he with all that worship of the altar lacked,
And in those sacred mysteries his longing was to share.

To Saint Peter’s in Rome around that time he made his way,
And saw, on his devotional visit to that holy abode,
A multitude of [beggars] sitting at the temple’s doors.
At that moment, poverty and pity both stirring his love,
He delivered his garments to one he saw to be poorer
Than the rest, and in their stead the other’s torn and wretched
Rags he put on; a pauper in pauper’s company.
So, he spent the day the happiest of men among the poor,
Hoping that, thus scorning mundane pride, he might by degrees
Up to those levels of greatest loftiness be transported,
From middle courses to summit is progress wont to be made,
And step by step does heightened virtue receive its vigor;
The mightiest of rivers originate as humble streams.

The Versified Life of Saint Francis by Henri D’Avrahnches, Book 1, c. AD 1283


As I have already said, to imitate St. Francis would be impossible. Nevertheless, his model for serving the needy is a timeless truth – if one really wants to minister to a group of people – he or she must be willing to identify with and engage them. This certainly applies to any ministry context, but it is especially true with the needy. If we want to be obedient to our God-given calling to care for the needy – and God has called ALL OF US to care for the needy – we must be willing to NOT cross to the other side of the street, look them in the eye, take off the metaphorical rubber gloves and touch them with our own hands. We must learn to treat them with dignity as our equals, created in the image of God. We must be willing to love them as our neighbor, to love them as we love ourselves and indeed to do unto them as we would have done to us.


The stigmata, or the mystical appearance of the wounds of Christ on an earthly follower, has been attributed to hundreds of people since the 13th century. The Catholic dictionary (click to view the entry and a partial list) numbers 321 “stigmatics – with St. Francis’ being the first. This text comes from the first biography of St. Francis written by Thomas of Celano around AD 1230. He wrote two biographies of St. Francis – The First Life of St. Francis  and The Second Life of St. Francis. English translations of certain selections from these two works can be found here.

When the blessed servant of God saw these things he was filled with wonder, but he did not know what the vision meant. He rejoiced greatly in the benign and gracious expression with which he saw himself regarded by the seraph, whose beauty was indescribable; yet he was alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was suffering terribly. Thus Francis rose, one might say, sad and happy, joy and grief alternating in him. He wondered anxiously w hat this vision could mean, and his soul was uneasy as it searched for understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation and his heart was filled with perplex it y at the great novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him.

His hands and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing in the palms of his hands and on the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the nail-ends, bent and driven back. In the same way the marks of nails were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh. Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his sacred blood.


In 1219, St. Francis took advantage of a temporary “cease fire” between Christians and Moslems to visit Malik al-Kamil, who was the nephew of Saladin and the Sultan of Egypt. Some say Francis went seeking peace on behalf of Christendom, others that he desired martyrdom. Indeed, Francis could have been put to death on multiple fronts. If not killed by the Sultan or Moslem forces, he could have very well been tried and executed for heresy and treason on account of his opposition the Crusade. The Inquisition was at its height of activity during this period.

Giotto Painted The Alleged "Fire Walking" incident (c. AD 1300)

The story of St. Francis and the Sultan has been “super-sized” just a bit. Some say Francis convinced the Sultan to end his counter-attacks on Christian crusaders. Others say Francis put on a fiery-furnace-like display where he walked through fire unharmed in the power of the Spirit. St. Bonaventure argued that the Sultan not only allowed Francis to preach Christianity to the Moslems, but also that the Sultan himself later became a believer as a result of the encounter.
It is safe to say that no one really knows what transpired between St. Francis and the Sultan, other than that their conversation was peaceful and likely beneficial.

There is a great book that came out in 2009 that delves into the story of St. Francis and the Sultan with more detail (along with speculation and hyperbole). You can view it here


The man who would come to be known as St. Francis was born Giovanni (John) Bernardone in the Italian town of Assisi. He was affectionately called “Francis” by his father Pietro Bernardone. In ways similar to Augustine of Hippo, Francis grew up wealthy and educated which allowed him to spend his youth in lavish indulgences of carnality.

Francis’ spiritual awakening came after being a prisoner of war and enduring a painful illness. According to Schaff, “He arose from his bed disgusted with himself and unsatisfied with the world.” As he began to contemplate how to express his newfound religious convictions, he considered both military and ecclesiastical service. After his aforementioned encounter with the leper, Francis chose religion.

At first, he moved into the woods and lived in isolation and nakedness. Soon, however, he realized that his calling to the monastic life was not isolation but rather in the middle of urban life. Francis spent his mid to late twenties living among lepers. He dressed like them, begged like them, and risked his own health by continually attending to their sores. He chose voluntary poverty in order to provide more sustenance for the needy. He gave away all of his possessions and rented the clothes he was not wearing to others in order to gain more money for poor. Francis’ passion for the poor grew to such a point that he was even willing to steal from his own father in order to give to the poor, causing his father to have him thrown in jail.

He begged for stones in order to rebuild the Church of St. Damian – a church that had been a home to Christianity in Assisi before being destroyed in Christian/Moslem battles. This church would become a ministry center for Francis and his followers, the Franciscans. They had disavowed all possessions, however, and so their ownership of the church was held loosely. St. Damians would later become home to the “Poor Clares,” who were pioneers in female monasticism as part of the Franciscan order.

Francis and his fellow monks became part of the “mendicant” orders, or begging orders. If they were unable to earn necessities through work, they would beg in public places or from house to house. They slept wherever they could find a bed, be it outside, in barns, or among the lepers. They often went barefoot and wore only enough clothing to provide what was necessary for warmth and modesty.

After all the amazing events in the life of St. Francis, he died of a nagging illness at the young age of 44. It is said that he died in St. Damians, the church he rebuilt, while reciting the text of Psalm 142, which David sang while hiding in a cave. As Thomas of Celano said, “Francis met death singing.”


1 I cry aloud to the LORD;
I lift up my voice to the LORD for mercy.
2 I pour out before him my complaint;
before him I tell my trouble.

3 When my spirit grows faint within me,
it is you who watch over my way.
In the path where I walk
people have hidden a snare for me.
4 Look and see, there is no one at my right hand;
no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge;
no one cares for my life.

5 I cry to you, LORD;
I say, “You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.”

6 Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.
7 Set me free from my prison,
that I may praise your name.
Then the righteous will gather about me
because of your goodness to me.

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